Conservative minister promises a welfare system that ‘lifts you when you can rise’

Iain Duncan Smith does not have to look far to find critics of his reforms

Cheetham Hill is a little over two miles from the Manchester Central conference centre, but there are days when a short journey can feel like a gulf.

Standing on stage in front of a half-filled hall at the centre yesterday, where he addressed the Conservative Party's annual conference, Britain's work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith talked of a world of aspiration and rising employment figures, where reform of welfare rules is working.

In Cheetham Hill, however, many are anxiously looking towards winter, says Robin Lawler, of Northwards Housing Association, which manages 13,500 local authority homes there and in surrounding areas.

Under changes brought in six months ago, welfare claimants lose housing benefit if they are deemed to have more bedrooms than they need.


For Duncan Smith, the reform is fair, since housing stock should be best used, while private tenants live where they can afford rather than where they want.

Throughout Manchester, some 12,000 individuals, or families have been affected by the changes to the “housing subsidy” – Duncan Smith’s language, though it is better known as “the bedroom tax”.

Six months ago, Lawler and others had feared that thousands would already be behind with rent: "It isn't as bad as we thought it was going to be, but we were very pessimistic," he says. But the problems have been delayed, not removed, the Northwards chief executive adds.

Back in April, he believed arrears would hit £2 million this year, though, so far, they are nudging around £500,000.

For some, this will justify the reforms. However, Lawler argues: “We’ve had a hot summer where people have not been putting on the heat*ing. Energy costs will start to rack up from now on.

"A number of people had credit balances and they have gone down over the last six months. They've been living off a surplus that has now gone," he told The Irish Times.

Rent is now more expensive to collect too, since housing benefit no longer covers all of it: “We have employed three additional rent officers.”

Taxpayers, Duncan Smith argues, will save £1 billion from the change – which is fair, he argues, when two million people “languish in despair on housing waiting lists, or in overcrowded homes”.

“We are returning fairness to the system,” he told delegates, though his speech was received with little enthusiasm, even if the reforms are popular. The changes will cost affected households a minimum of £14 per week, though Manchester’s numbers have been reduced by 1,000 homes from where the council thought it would be last April. The numbers fell because of concessions to cover carers staying overnight and those caring for disabled children, though “a number of tenants have down-sized, or found other solutions”.

The city’s problem, like that faced elsewhere, is that its housing stock is “post-war”, says Lawler, built to house larger families, rather than today’s smaller average. The changes, along with the £26,000 welfare cap also imposed by Duncan Smith, is slowly changing Manchester, according to a briefing paper presented to councillors last month.

In it, officials highlighted the migration under way from higher to lower rent areas – with demand in Chorlton, Didsbury and Hulme down by up to 21 per cent, while demand in Gorton and Moston is up by 10 per cent. The great majority of that is down to the benefits cap rather than the bedroom tax; because while cheaper properties are available, smaller ones are not.

Though the bedroom tax is increasingly questioned, it is undoubted that the Conservatives’ push to reduce the welfare bill is popular with voters.

This week they went further, telling those out of work for more than two years that they will have to do community work, or take up training on pain of losing benefits.

Equally, those in the black economy while also claiming benefits will be forced to stay in job centres searching for work nine-to-five, “simulating the working day”.

In a warning to Conservatives, Duncan Smith declared that Labour and others will use the “invective of hate-filled abuse” to stop the reforms. Preacher-like, he turned to the heavens, urging them to hold a “simple” creed “in your hearts”, one where welfare catches “you when you fall, but lifts you when you can rise”.

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is Ireland and Britain Editor with The Irish Times